Thai officials ruled out any immediate attempts to evacuate 12 football players and their coach trapped deep inside a system of caves in northern Thailand on Saturday despite concerns over low oxygen levels underground and poor weather forecasts.
“No, not today,” Narongsak Osottanakorn, the governor of Chiang Rai province, said on Saturday after being pressed by reporters on rescue efforts.
A team of Thai Navy SEALS, soldiers, police and volunteers has been working frantically to drain the cave since the group was discovered on Monday.
They are now teaching the children, aged between 11 and 16 and not all of whom are strong swimmers, to attempt a treacherous dive through narrow, submerged tunnels.
Officials are considering a rescue plan involving a “buddy dive” -- where an experienced adult diver would swim with each boy -- to evacuate the team members, according to a US official familiar with the joint rescue operation.
On Friday, Thai Navy SEAL chief Rear Admiral Aphakorn Yoo-kongkaew said oxygen levels in the cave had dropped to 15 per cent, a level that one Thai medic said posed a serious risk of hypoxia, the same condition that causes altitude sickness.
Governor Osottanakorn was quoted as telling the media that “air is a major issue,” but added that UK experts had confirmed the conditions in the chamber where the children are located were “all right.”
“The kids are still are able to walk around, play around comfortably,” he said. “If (there is) heavy rain and the situation is not good, we will try.”
Ivan Katadzic, a Danish diving instructor who has been ferrying oxygen tanks into the cave, said to Reuters after a dive on Friday he was “double positive” about the mission because the water level had dropped considerably.
Alternative rescue plans include stocking the cave with supplies and an oxygen line to keep the boys alive for months until Thailand’s monsoon season ends, or drilling a shaft down from the forest above.
Besides looking for possible holes from above, the team on the hill above is trying to block holes and divert streams that channel water into the cave before the weather turns.
Growing international interest in the rescue has spurred help from countries such as Australia, Britain, China, Japan and the United States, among others.
The president of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has invited the boys to be his guests at the World Cup Final in Moscow on July 15 if they make it out in time.